Through a comprehensive study of changing pottery attributes, Saunders documents the clash of Spanish and Native American cultures in the 16th-century southeastern United States.
By studying the ceramic traditions of the Guale Indians, Rebecca Saunders provides evidence of change in Native American lifeways from prehistory through European contact and the end of the Mission period. The Guale were among the first southeastern groups to come into contact with Spanish and French colonists, and they adapted various strategies in order to ensure their own social survival. That adaptation is reflected, Saunders shows, in the changing attributes of pottery recovered on archaeological sites on the coasts of Georgia and Florida.
Saunders traces the evolution of Guale pottery from the late prehistoric Irene phase through the Mission period at the three archaeological sites. She uses both technological and stylistic attributes to monitor change, paying particular attention to changes in execution and frequency of the filfot cross—a stylized cross that is a symbol of Guale cosmology. The frequency of this symbol in different ceramic components, according to Saunders, is a measure of change in the worldview of the missionized Guale. Although the symbol abruptly changed after the first Spanish contact, it showed remarkable stability through the Mission period, suggesting that traditional craft training and production remained strong despite high mortality rates and frequent relocation.
Only after 1684, when the Guale were relocated to Amelia Island in present-day Florida, did the use of the cross motif decline, suggesting that the Guale who remained in Spanish territory may have conceived of their place in the cosmos differently from their forebears or their contemporaries who fled to the interior.